The other day my wife said that she understood what Humanism was against, namely the moral and social impact of religion on society, but asked what it was for? Earlier this year we had a discussion of what might be core humanist values.
Perhaps a first response is to say that Humanism is a celebration of what humans are and what they can be. The theory of evolution with its notion of progress towards the perfectibility of species, is strong in humanist philosophy and this tends towards a sympathetic understanding of our relationship with other evolved species on the planet. Being a Humanist is to take an optimistic view on the perfectibility of the human species and to the future possibilities for humankind in a challenging world. Humanism promotes a rationalist outlook on reality and tends to look towards a systematic, evidence based understanding of the world. It is embedded in what might be referred to as the 17th century ‘Enlightenment Project’, the revolution against scholastic theologically based understandings of the pre-modern world, and it sees the previous three hundred years or so, as ones of steady progress in terms of human welfare and survival.
One of the chief intellectual virtues of science is that of scepticism, a view of every theory as potentially open to falsification and therefore to be treated with caution. Science (unlike much religion) tells us that there is little certainty in human knowledge and one must be careful of dogma and ideology. This is probably a good message for Humanism itself. The Enlightenment was born in the context of the reformation with its orgies of violence and killing, and contained the seed of optimism that reason and enlightenment would would put an end to such religious strife. In fact the technological growth, let loose by enlightenment science has been implicated in three wars (the American Civil War and two World Wars) of equal violence as deadly as any of the religious wars of the reformation. In the contemporary world science tells us that we are in the sixth great age of mass extinctions as human beings crowd out our evolutionary cousins. I do not have to add this list of horrors the dangers to the world arising from our greed for carbon based fuels.
Religious teachings to some extent offer partial solutions to these problems. Most forms of religious belief hold to a simpler, less materialistic and more communitarian way of living, in which our attitude to the world is one of gratitude and respect. It is not unusual in Humanist literature to find reference to the terrible examples of religious strife in the world but religious teachings almost invariably seek to promote peace and reconciliation between peoples. At the root of most teachings are the exhortations not to kill and to treat each other with love and respect.
In our definition of Humanism, it may be argued, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Religious understandings represent both the worst and best in humankind. In our attempts to find a definition of Humanist understanding and its values, it might be useful, rather than set ourselves in dogmatic opposition to religion, to selectively draw from its teachings. Humanism in this context might be defined as promoting a less materially ambitious and more communitarian way of living, that has justifications in both religious and philosophical literatures.